I ate at my local Italian restaurant just now and, as often happens, the credit card call didn’t go through, so I signed instead of using a PIN. Given that the banks have announced this won’t be possible in a few months time what will they do about this fairly common problem? Any experts out there?
Another Anzac Day. A solemn occasion to remember the heroism and sacrifice of those who died and to recall with horror the waste of young lives in a war of rival empires. Australians had no quarrel with Turks, nor they with us. And, in the Middle East, as elsewhere, the war achieved nothing and resolved nothing, but rather generated and inflamed conflicts that continue to this day.
For quite some time, I’ve been saying that research effort into the economics of happiness would be better devoted to researching unhappiness. I’ve now presented this argument in the excellent online magazine Aeon, with the takeaway
So, perhaps we need a new research programme, to examine how unhappiness really works. Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? Is striving after more and better possessions more fulfilling than satisfaction with what you have? It’s obvious from the way I’ve posed these questions what I believe the answer to be. But genuine research into the economics of unhappiness might yield some surprising answers to such questions as these, and reveal new questions that we have never before considered.
Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.
This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.
I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
Also, reposting this petition appeal from Alanna Skelly, who used to comment here as “Alice” and “Alanna Hardman”. Please keep discussion thoughtful and civil
I’ve started the petition “Tony Abbott: Stop all our banks accommodating BITCOIN transactions.” and need your help to get it off the ground.
Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here’s the link:
Here’s why it’s important:
Please stop BITCOIN in Australia because our youth are using this method to buy drugs from online sites across the globe. The drug sellers are mushrooming becausing BITCOIN is operating a tumbler style of making the ultimate recipient of the drug money untraceable. Our children are dying. Children in the US are dying. Please support this petition because I have just lost my twenty one year old son to the online drug trade. Its not the little fish the police need to go after. First stop BITCOIN from hiding these criminals. Make it illegal for any Australian financial institution to deal with BITCOIN accounts. Without the might and IT expertise of BITCOIN these criminals who despatch toxic substances can not hide themselves. The beautiful kind hearted boy in this photo has died before he should have. This petition has been written by his mother.
You can sign my petition by clicking here.
Long-term readers of the comments section will recall Alanna Skelly, who posted here as “Alanna” and “Alice”. Yesterday, I received from her the sad news that she had lost her son to an overdose of drugs, purchased online using Bitcoin. Alanna has started a petition on change.org, asking that banks should stop facilitating such transactions by accommodating Bitcoin.
Readers will have different views on the policy issues, but this isn’t the occasion to discuss them, so there will be no comments on this post. Those who would like to support the petition can follow the link above.
Regardless of our politics, I’m sure everyone here will join me in extending to Alanna and her family our deepest sympathies.
I’ve seen a number of interesting things in relation to road safety lately, some of which have caused me to revise my thoughts.
First, there’s the question of retesting for older drivers. This seemed self-evidently desirable to me, based on data showing very high fatality rates per km driven and that in most collision involving older (75+) drivers they are at fault. However, a Twitter discussion (must work out how to do Storify!) following this Background Briefing showed that things aren’t nearly so clear-cut. The fatality evidence isn’t really helpful, since it just reflects the fact that an accident is more likely to be fatal to an older person than to a younger one. The differential hazard is far greater for falls, which suggests that forcing older people out of cars may not be beneficial. And overall, the evidence on the benefits of testing appears to be mixed at best (the Monash expert quoted in BB overstates the case a bit, in my view).
More directly relevant to me (at least for the next decade or two) there are some suggestions regarding cyclist: a one-meter clearance requirement for cars , relaxation of abolition of helmet laws and requirements for licensing, rego and third-party insurance. The first is obviously sensible, the big issue being enforcement. On the third, I agree in principle with licensing and TPI, the main problem being what to do about children. Registration seems undesirable until we have a proper system of road pricing.
On helmets, I’m genuinely ambivalent, particularly after witnessing a head impact accident this morning (no injury, thanks to helmet). I would always use a helmet, but I’m not happy about the claim that Australia should have different helmet laws than Europe because our roads are more dangerous, and our drivers more aggressive. Granted that this is true we need to change these conditions. The obvious first step would be to reduce the current 60/50 speed limits for suburban streets and subarterial roads respectively to 50/40. This would greatly benefit road users (including both cyclists and older drivers) who can’t or don’t want to travel at or near existing speed limits. The welfare cost of slightly lower limits would, in my view, be trivial. I have zero sympathy for those (echoing smokers and polluters of all kinds) who want their convenience to justify imposing risks on others.
The other point though relates to those aggressive drivers. Whereas the evidence on older drivers is weak, there is ample evidence that aggressive driving, manifested particularly in traffic violations, is associated with higher crash risk, as is at-fault involvement in a previous crash. The current points system is absurdly lenient in this respect. The 12 point allowance lets drivers be convicted over a serious offence (running stop lights, speeding in a school zone etc) every year without any restriction on driving, and the suspension period for violators is only few months. I’d suggest a lifetime allowance of 24 points, with permanent restrictions thereafter, as well as reducing the three year allowance to 8 points, and increasing suspension periods.
The restrictive treatment of drivers at the older and younger ends of the age spectrum contrasts sharply with the treatment of a drivers license as a natural right for the 25-75 group, to be withdrawn only in extreme cases. In my view, aggressive drivers should be taken off the road to make them safer for the rest of us, including non-motorists and those whose reflexes aren’t sharp enough to cope with the high-speed high-risk driving of others.
I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.
That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.
And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.
Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for you, my readers (at least, those of you who don’t just come here to get annoyed at whatever lefty nonsense I’m banging on with today). In the past 10 years, WordPress tells me, I’ve written over 5000 blog posts, while still keeping up the supply of books and journal articles for which I earn my living, and, I hope, managing to keep plenty of time for family and friends.
The political right seems eager to open new fronts in the culture wars. The latest, from the WSJ, is running (I won’t link to their piece, but to this translation). I’m happy to say that I am on the correct (that is, left) side of this latest battle. Apparently, liberal elitist runners have bumper stickers indicating the longest distance (in miles) they have run, say 26.2 for a marathon. Real Americans, on the other hand, never leave their cars (except to move from the garage to the couch) and therefore have stickers saying 0.0.
I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from Paul Keating. The core of the piece
The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.
The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.
But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.
I’m currently reading Scarcity by by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. At this stage, I’m inclined to sympathise with the unnamed colleague who commented “There’s already a science of scarcity. It’s called economics”. So far, it’s mostly straightforward applications of the observation that time and attention are scarce resources, combined with some fairly familiar observations from behavioral econ on how people fail to optimise either the first-order problems of allocating a tight budget or the second order problem of allocating time and attention to the first-order problem (my terms here, not theirs). However, I’m only part way through, and the authors promise to show how their approach differs from the way in which economists would normally think about this kind of problem.
This post is about a specific and well known observation cited by Mullainathan and Shafir. Faced with paying $100 for an item that could be had elsewhere for $50, most people are willing to put in a fair bit of effort (say, driving for an hour) to get the lower price.[^1] On the other hand if the item costs $1050 and could be had for $1000, people with reasonably high incomes mostly pay up, instead of driving to the other store. This is obviously inconsistent with standard opportunity cost.
It’s safe to say that, little as I expected of the Newman government, the reality has generally been worse. Still, I’m going to give them credit on whenever it seems due, and here’s the first thing they’ve done that I can happily support. Following the recommendations of a study commissioned by the previous Labor government, it’s planned to drop the reverse parking component of the Queensland driving test. Ever since I failed my first driving test on this score 40 years ago, I’ve regarded it as a piece of utter stupidity. Why should anyone else be concerned whether I can reverse park, any more than they should care whether I can change my own oil? If anything, the worse I am at parallel parking, the better for everyone else – not only do I leave more spots for them, but they don’t face the risk of being jammed in a spot by someone who has skilfully parked their car with millimetres to spare.
This seems absolutely obvious. But, to give the contrary view, I turn the mike over to Paul Turner from motoring body RACQ, who manages to ignore the obvious contradictions in his statement.
“What we want is safer drivers, so we think the more it leans to a strengthening of the licensing system, the better,” Mr Turner said.
He said although reverse parking did not carry a high crash risk, it was still a “technical skill” that deserved a place in the driving test.
I’d suggest that a more relevant “technical skill” would be a stiff test in formal logic. That would clear an awful lot of bad drivers off the road.
With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others. So, in the spirit of adventure, I’m going to step away from my usual program of soft and fluffy topics like the bubbliness of bitcoins, the uselessness of navies and the agnotology of climate denial, and tackle the thorny question of running vs walking.
Happily, and unlike, say climate science, this is a question on which you can find a reputable scientific study to support just about any position you care to name, and even some that appear to support both sides, so I’m just going to pick the ones I like, draw the conclusions I want, and invite you all to have it out in the comments thread. I’m also going to attempt the classic move of representing the opposing positions as extremes, relative to which I occupy the sensible centre.
Like many of us, I’m engaged in a constant struggle to maintain a healthy weight and fitness level, and being an economist, I naturally like to think about this in quantitative terms (I’m not alone in this).
The basic equation is simple: Energy used – energy consumed = fat burnt. But to make sense of this equation, we need units, and that raises the immediate questions:
Calories or kilojoules? and
How much do I have to burn to lose 1kg of fat?
The short answers are: Calories and 9000 Cal
More over the fold
My essay in (the new and exciting) Aeon magazine looking at Keynes’ suggestion that we could achieve decent living standards for all with an average of 15 hours a week of market work has had mostly favorable responses. But Kevin Vallier at the Bleeding Hearts Libertarian blog has now written a lengthy response and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say, since he throws a lot of adjectives (sectarian, morally impoverished and so on) at me without actually spelling out an objection.
Vallier’s response is in three parts. The first is a lengthy and fairly accurate, though hostile, summary of my general political position. He doesn’t offer a substantive criticism, but snipes about semantics Vallier objects, for example, to my “derisive” use of the term “market liberalism’ to describe “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years”. In fact, as I said in Zombie Economics, I picked the term precisely to avoid the pejorative connotations of the more commonly used “neoliberalism”. What does Vallier propose here? I can’t spell out “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years” every time I want to refer to the ideas I’m criticising. In essence, I think he is upset that, by giving any name to the dominant ideas of recent decades, I am pointing out that they represent an ideology, with a history, rather than a set of timeless truths.
The second part of Vallier’s response is a summary of the main argument of my essay, but so brief that a reader who didn’t follow the link would have a very limited idea of what I was saying. The third part criticises me for advocating “coercion” against people who want to work hard and make money. Vallier doesn’t say what he means by this. The obvious incorrect inference, drawn by quite a few of his readers, is that I’m advocating statutory limits on hours of paid work. However, he doesn’t seem to mean that. Rather, he seems to object to high income earners being required to pay taxes to support people who don’t work.
But this raises a puzzle. The only policy proposal I discuss in any detail is that for a guaranteed minimum income. But Vallier supports this – in fact, it’s pretty much the central distinction between Bleeding Heart Libertarians and the regular Republican+legal drugs kind. So, is he inferring (correctly) that I’d propose a higher minimum than the BHLs? Or something else? I really don’t know.
A quick post to wish my readers all the best for 2013. I’ll put up some substantive posts and open threads soon, but in the meantime, feel free to express your wishes for 2013. Just for this post, I’d like everyone to accentuate the positive and avoid conflict with other commenters. Normal service will resume soon.
I don’t have anything to say, other than to express my grief at the loss suffered by so many. Others may have more insights to offer
The Noosa Triathlon is coming up on Sunday, and there’s still time to give to Heartkids, the charity I’m supporting. Just click on the picture in the right-hand sidebar. Or, if you’d prefer a different charity, why don’t you give now, and (if you like) post a comment announcing it. Either way, it’s a great chance to help others.
Back before many readers of this blog were born, there was a TV ad campaign “Life, Be In It“, encouraging us all to be more active. It featured a jolly, middle-aged, mildly overweight character called Norm (as in Norm Everage), and a jingle on the merits of “Thirty Minutes a Day” of moderate exercise.
I think of myself as a lot more energetic and exercise-oriented than Norm, and being a data fan, I record most of my exercise using Runkeeper. So, I finally got around to checking the duration stats and was surprised to find that I do only about 20 hours of running, cycling and swimming in the average month. That’s just 40 minutes a day. You can take from that what you will, but my thought is that, unless you’re aiming to qualify for the Boston Marathon, or, like me,you just enjoy exercise, Norm was right. 30 minutes a day is all you need.
fn1. That doesn’t including walking, short cycle trips to work and the shops, and occasional gym workouts, but those things wouldn’t add more than 20 mins a day.
Since long before I started blogging, I’ve been planning a big article on the prospects for Utopia, starting off from Keynes’ essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. While I procrastinated, lots of others had the same idea, most recently Robert and Edward Skidelsky. But, with encouragement from Ed Lake at Aeon Magazine, I went ahead anyway and the article has just appeared.
This is also a good time to announce that our long-promised book event on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is going ahead, with a target publication date of March 2013.
This article by fellow-MAMIL Michael O’Reilly makes an argument I’d been meaning to post. Whatever the merits of bike helmet laws in general, the costs clearly outweigh them in relation to bike-share schemes like CityCycle in Brisbane.
We clearly need a category of exemptions that lets people hire a slow bike for touring around our cities. Having done that, I’d extend it to anyone willing to take the trouble to apply for exemption, while maintaining the helmet rule as the default. I certainly wouldn’t seek an exemption – I like my head the way it is – but I can imagine there are people who would make the choice, and it’s not so obvious that their judgement should be over-ridden.
I seem to be back on air for the moment, so I’m taking the chance to appeal for doantions to the HeartKids appeal. My team partner Flavio and I have committed to raise $2000, but we are still $130 short. Please help to push us over the line, and we will push to get ourselves over the line in Noosa. Just click on the link and give money!
Some good news! I’ve just been awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship to work on uncertainty and financial crises. That means five more years of funding. I’ve been stringing various ARC Fellowships, Federation Fellowships and so on together since the mid-1990s, and there’s always an anxious wait when one is about to run out, and the new ones have not been announced – there’s no guarantee, or even presumption, that winning one means you will get another, and there’s plenty of competition, so it’s a matter of starting from scratch every time. The really nice time, starting now, is the last few months of the old grant, when I get to wrap things up and contemplate the start of something new. I’m very grateful to the Australian government for supporting me in my research over all these years.
To support my fundraising appeal for HeartKids Queensland. Just click on the ad on the right and give money. It would be great to reach $2000 by the end of the financial year (30 June).
An added incentive – after the carbon tax comes in on Sunday, money will be worthless and bank balances will be confiscated by the UN, so you may as well give generously while you still can.
fn1. Unfortunately, the widget isn’t updating the total amount at the moment, but I’ll announce it soon.
fn2. Oops, not sure if I was supposed to pre-announce that, so don’t tell anyone
In comments, David Barry, winner of the previous crowdsourcing contest writes
I would be interested in seeing how much global research funding goes towards different diseases. My goal here is to see if research funding into a disease is roughly proportional to the global burden of the disease, or if there are relatively under- and over-funded areas; the former might then be the best place for individuals to donate to, if they want to support medical research.
The global burdens are on the WHO’s website: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/estimates_regional/en/index.html I don’t know where I’d find funding statistics. As a first step, I’d be happy with just US/EU government agency funding data. For instance, the National Cancer Institute has a nice table here, http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/NCI/research-funding
This is a great topic, and I encourage readers to look into it. I’d offer the minor caveat that research is conditioned to some extent by the availability of researchable topics. For example, I believe (though I’m happy to be proved wrong) that the mortality rates from prostate cancer are similar to those for breast cancer, but that breast cancer research gets much more funding. As I understand it, this is mainly because there don’t appear to be as many promising avenues for research on prostate cancer.
Also, a reminder that my crowdsourcing request for a simple model-based estimate of the date at which a minority of Census respondents will identify as Christian is now open. (Minor update: The proportion claiming Christian affililation fell from 64 to 61 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Simple extrapolation gives a target date of 2031. I’m sure a model with some demography would do better than this).
I’ve seen a bunch of reports from the census saying that the proportion of Australians reporting “no religion” has increased substantially, to around 22 per cent. I’d be interested to know if this is mainly a cohort effect (non-believing younger generations entering the population) or the result of people who previously reported a religious affiliation switching to reporting none. I’d be surprised if much of it was the result of people abandoning previous religious beliefs, as opposed to nominal affiliations, but I don’t think the data allows a test of this.
I just had a brilliant idea for how to motivate this effort. The first person to give a good answer gets to nominate the next topic for crowdsourcing. As a hint, the ideal way to answer the question would be to compare responses from a given age group in 2006 with the same group, now 5 years older, in 2011, adjusting, if possible for migration effects.
Update: The evidence, collected in the comments threads, suggests that cohort and conversion effects each account for about half of the shift.
The prize goes to David Barry, with honorable mentions to Aldonius and Luke Elford. I’ll give Dave first shot at proposing a new topic (in comments), but also invite suggestions from Luke and Aldonius. Meanwhile, I’m going to suggest something a bit more challenging for crowd-sourcing. If anyone would like to use the data to develop a simple model to project likely changes in stated Census affilations over the next two decades, with a specific focus on the question “When will (Census reported) Christian affilation become a minority response in Australia”, I’ll add a write up and send it as a joint post to The Conversation, the new(ish) academic-focused website.
Thanks to some generous donations, we reached the $500 target over the weekend, though the display is not updating (at least for me). As promised, I’ve put in $500, and Flavio has done the same. With some additional donations we’re now over $1600. It would be great if we could make the $4000 target before the end of the financial year.
The counter on my fundraiser widget is not updating properly, but I’m happy to say we’ve already raised $380 for HeartKids. Thanks to everyone who has given so far – I’ll be sending individual thankyous soon. There’s still plenty of time to get your donation in before the end of the financial year, but the sooner you do, the sooner I’ll be able to show the undead hordes a clean pair of heels.
To give everyone an incentive, if I get $500 in donations by Monday*, I’ll match it.
*You can also donate to Flavio’s part of the effort, which is tallied separately
Just in time for the end of the financial year, another fundraiser! I’m planning to run in the Noosa Triathlon in November. My friend Flavio Menezes and I have set up a charity fundraising team, with the hopeful title “Faster Than Zombies #2″, and you can give money through the Everyday Hero widget on the sidebar. We’re aiming to raise $4000 between us. A few points which I hope will help to get the credit cards out:
* We’ll be supporting HeartKids Queensland which helps children born with heart disease and their families. I know it’s always hard to choose which charities to support, but this one does a lot of good and scores really well on the “warm inner glow” scale
* Last time around, some commenters expressed concern about the cost charged by Everyday Hero. I raised this with HeartKids and got the advice that, for a small charity like theirs, going through Everyday Hero is more cost-effective than handling donations directly
* This blog is free and always will be. The only financial return I ask for is support in efforts like this one.
* For those in paid work, donations are tax deductible. That means you can give more!
I know not everyone can afford to give much to charity, and many of you will have made your own choices already. But for those with a bit of spare cash, here’s a chance to put it to good use.
A little while ago, I got a message from the Fin to tell me they wouldn’t be running any more columns from me, as they are bringing in some new commentators. Given my run-in with Michael Stutchbury (then at the Oz, now Editor-in-Chief of the Fin) last year, and other changes at the Fin since he came on board, I wasn’t surprised. Still, it’s the end of a long-running association, which started, ironically (at least in the Alanis Morrisette sense of the term) when Michael was opinion editor there. My first column, advocating the exclusion of food from the GST, ran in 1992. I wrote occasional pieces after that, and I was a regular columnist for 15 years, which is a very long stint by Australian standards, at least for someone who isn’t a full-time journalist.
I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I think I’ve made a useful contribution, but now it’s time to move on. I’ll certainly continue to take part in public debate, through this blog and other media, but this gives me a chance to stop and think more clearly about where I want to go with this part of my life.